91st Annual Academy Awards - Arrivals
Queen Latifah attends the 91st Annual Academy Awards at Hollywood and Highland on February 24, 2019 in Hollywood, California.
Neilson Barnard

Music Sermon: Why Ya’ll Owe Queen Latifah More Credit

Queen Latifah was one of the first crossover female rap artists, who broke barriers and set standards for not just women in hip-hop, but black women in music to follow.

There’s an abundance of “queens” in the game right now. Yes, we’re all queens and wear a personal crown, I know. That aside, “Queen” is sometimes used a little loosely for artists and entertainers. I’m not going to get into whose crown is real and whose is possibly from Party City, but there’s a sovereign monarch y’all have been neglecting. Long before fan armies and hives were out here staging coronations willy-nilly, there was Queen Latifah.

An eight-year-old Dana Owens was scrolling through a book of Arabic names with her cousin when she saw the name “Latifah,” which means delicate and sensitive, and promptly decided it was for her. When she started rapping in high school, she wanted a title fitting of the name. Latifah told CNN’s Larry King, “I didn’t want to be emcee Latifah or, you know, all these different monikers that you could have put on, but I…thought, Queen, you know my mom raised me to be a queen. Queen. Queen Latifah.”

For the last 20 years of her 30-year career, however, Latifah’s been known primarily as an actress. Much like her industry contemporary Will Smith, the rap career feels long ago and far away. There’s even a segment of fans who are more familiar with her as a singer than as a rapper. In honor of Women’s History Month (and Latifah's recent investment into a housing initiative in Newark, New Jersey), this is VIBE’s Queen Latifah refresher course; a reminder that she was one of the first crossover female rap artists, who broke barriers and set standards for not just women in hip-hop, but black women in music to follow.

Wanna talk about consciousness? Latifah did that.
Singing and rapping? Yup, the first.
Feminism? From the door.
Owning her own entertainment company and label? Did it early.
Acting? Did it. Killed it.
Creating, producing and owning content? Mmhmm.
Brand partnerships? Check.
Beauty and wellness? Yup.
Body positivity and promoting self-esteem? Hello, “Queen.”
There ain’t a door she wasn’t the first or one of the first women in hip-hop to walk through.

The Princess of the Posse

She started as a member of New Jersey’s Flavor Unit, led by Mark the 45 King, a producer now best known for Jay-Z’s “Hard Knock Life,” Eminem’s “Stan,” and a cut called “The 900 Number,” Yo! MTV Raps’ Ed Lover’s signature song. The Flavor Unit was a crew of emcees and DJs similar to the Marley Marl’s Juice Crew, and Latifah was the stand out star.

Mark passed her demo to influencer-of-all-things-in-early-hip-hop, Fab 5 Freddy, who in turn passed it to signer-of-mad-acts-in-early-hip-hop Dantè Ross. Ross immediately gave her a deal with hip-hop and dance hub Tommy Boy Records.

Repping For The Ancestors

Queen Latifah took her chosen name seriously, and her entire brand reflected her title. In the same 1989 Yo! MTV Raps episode above, Freddy went shopping with Latifah, and she explained her style and homage. “By wearing African clothes, African accessories, not only am I supporting my African brothers and sisters who have these businesses, but it brings me closer to my ancestors…I just feel inner power.”
She named her backup dancers the Safari Sisters, and they sported the ancestral garb with a touch of military flair. They were in charge and ready to battle anyone who tried to test.

Latifah blended reggae, Jersey house music, jazz and other elements into her music, effortlessly switched up rhyme and flow styles, and shifted between rapping and singing, which became a trademark throughout her career. And she kicked global knowledge. Her Queendom was open to all.

Her music was inclusive, but she was also clear that she was talking to the black community first. The conversations about who can enjoy the culture have been ongoing for hip-hop’s entire existence. In one of her earliest on camera interviews, Latifah discussed who hip-hop is for, coincidentally with 3rd Bass’s DJ Serch, a white MC. “By bringing knowledge to our people, we’re bringing knowledge to every other people and letting them know how we live. That’s when (music) becomes universal. That’s where the teaching comes in. [The message is] directed to the black culture, but it’s something for everyone to learn. We have to help us grow first, and then and only then can we associate with every other race.”

Hip-hop was at the beginning of the conscious movement. A mix of Black Nationalism, Islam and Afrocentrism permeated the culture. Rappers started to address blackness, politics and social conditions in their lyrics, and gold chains and Dapper Dan fits were supplanted with African medallions, beads, and prints. Latifah’s other rap collective, The Native Tongues, was at the forefront of the shift. The Jungle Brothers, De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, Black Sheep, Monie Love, and Latifah rebranded hip-hop, used it to celebrate and uplift culture, and made it more eclectic and relatable for kids that didn’t relate to street stories or machismo rap.

Accidental Feminist

Along with her regal demeanor, Latifah always had the spirit and energy of an elder, a sage. Media outlets called her “the Aretha Franklin of rap” when she debuted, a comparison not only because of her voluptuous build with round baby face, but because of the power and declaration in her voice and message. Over time, she earned the moniker First Lady of Hip-Hop. The Native Tongues called her “Mama Zulu” (a reference to the Universal Zulu Nation collective) even though she was still a teenager.

Latifah always represented equality and power for women. She and peers MC Lyte, Roxanne Shantè, Ms. Melodie and Salt-N-Pepa were fighting for position and respect. Hip-hop is born of the streets; it’s about boasting and braggadocio. There’s a reason why, 30 years after Lyte was the first female rapper to release a full-length album, the field still isn’t level. But from the moment the ladies hit the scene late ‘80s, stepping into a landscape dominated by LL Cool J, Public Enemy and NWA, Latifah and her peers came to play.

Like her self-ascribed Queen descriptor, Latifah’s albums announced the power and strength of black women with titles like All Hail the Queen, Nature of a Sista’ and Black Reign. She rapped about agency, visibility, confidence, self-reliance, and about not letting men play women short. I consider All Hail the Queen is the definitive Latifah album, and “Ladies First” is her definitive song.

Latifah and Monie Love were fast friends from the moment they met in 1987, and Latifah pitched the idea for the perfect collaboration. “She said she wanted to do something that was uplifting for women because it's a male-dominated industry and hip-hop is full of male acts. [Women rappers] do exist but we're few and far between.” Monie told Billboard. "She said, 'I want to do something that's going to empower women and shake the guys up a little bit. I want to call it ‘Ladies First’ because when a guy and a woman walk through the door, it's supposed to be ladies first.' So we built the song around that idea…We had no idea it was going to go down in history as this great woman empowerment song in hip-hop.”

The track was also a milestone moment for women in hip-hop. It was the first collaborative track with two female MCs who weren’t part of a group – and without a man on the joint hogging the light. The vision was originally for three; Latifah asked Lyte to join, but people convinced her it wasn’t a smart move, so she declined. It’s a decision Lyte still regrets. (Me too, because that would have been fire!) Latifah and Monie brought high spirited, high energy banter back and forth as they hyped each other up. Imagine, “Yes, BARS!!” but over a beat.

“Some think that we can't flow (can't flow)
Stereotypes, they got to go (got to go)
I'm a mess around and flip the scene into reverse
(With what?) With a little touch of ‘Ladies First’”

Latifah didn’t realize her ideology and message aligned with feminism. “(‘Ladies First’) is to tell ladies as well as men that we’re coming up, we’re standing proud and strong, and we won’t be impeded by anything,” she said in an early interview. “It’s not a feminist-type thing, ‘cause I’d never call myself a feminist. It’s just telling (women) they have to have more respect for themselves in an age where they are so exploited.” Okay, so feminism with a dash of fauxtep in the beginning. But still feminism. She became the rap mama you don’t want to show out around because you know she’s going to be disappointed (you could get loose with your rap aunties Salt-n-Pepa, though).

As hip-hop grew, the cultural misogyny grew with it. The Queen continued to serve in a mother/big sister role even to the artists in Flavor Unit, which she was then leading. She had a lyrical come-to-Jesus-meeting for black men and women about name calling, street harassment, and a lack of mutual respect. If Latifah is hip-hop’s Aretha, “U.N.I.T.Y” is her “Respect.”

The anthem is still her biggest single to date, and her signature song (along with “Ladies First”). It won the Grammy for Best Rap Solo Performance in 1995, right behind Lyte’s win for “Ruffneck” in 1994.

On the few occasions opportunity presented to gather a master class of female rappers, the Queen was always on the short list.

The Vanguard of Hip-Hop In Hollywood

Queen Latifah was one of the first rappers, along with Will Smith, Ice T and Ice Cube, to make a successful leap to the screen. In ‘90, she began landing guest spots and small roles in Juice, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air and Jungle Fever. She was good, easy, natural. But that was due in part to the characters falling on a Queen Latifah spectrum, not that far removed from her artist persona. Just tweaked a little.

When Living Single debuted in 1993, Latifah the rapper started moving aside for Latifah the actress. The ensemble comedy about young, upwardly mobile black friends in Brooklyn was a smash hit, and part of a new era in TV programming targeting the hip-hop generation. No-nonsense but loveable Khadijah James showcased Latifah’s ease and comedic timing.

Like her smaller roles, though, it wasn’t a stretch to imagine Khadajah as the woman Latifah would have been if she’d pursued journalism instead of rapping. Living Single was so successful (it inspired one of the defining mainstream sitcoms of the decade, Friends), Latifah was at risk of losing her rap cred. Hip-hop was still a couple of years away from celebrating and embracing crossover success. With her second album, she addressed anyone who had doubts.

Her cameo looks plus the starring role in a hit series solidified the Queen as a rapper who could also act. Then, she went to an alternative universe where the Living Single crew decided to rob banks: the all-women caper movie Set It Off. From that moment, she was an actress, who also rapped. The brash, gangsta Cleo was unlike anything we’d seen Latifah embody. Not in her music, not in her acting, and not in her personal life as the sister and daughter of police officers. Of no small consequence, Cleo was gay. “Gay, gay, gay” as Latifah herself described. On-camera, not simply implied.

“There’s a lot of stuff people will question about my character,” she told the LA Times around the movie’s release. “I needed to be somebody else to show the world that I had this gift – something I can’t do if I play Queen Latifah roles all of the time. I wanted to make a statement with a character who’s really quite opposite of who I really am, and establish a different voice.”

After Set It Off, there were no more small roles for the Queen. In her career to date, Latifah has starred in more than 30 feature films, including her Oscar-nominated turn as Mama Morton in Chicago - the only female rapper to be nominated in an acting or non-acting category. In addition to starring in Living Single, her Flavor Unit Entertainment has also produced multiple TV shows, she’s starred in and co-produced critically acclaimed TV movies including HBO’s Bessie (for which she won a SAG award), and hosted a daytime TV show. Over 20 years after Living Single and Set It Off, Latifah proved she’s also still relatable as the around-the-way homegirl with the 2017 box office phenomenon Girl’s Trip.

Multimedia Mogul

A few years into her career, Latifah began an evolution from rapper to business (not a “business woman” but a “business”…you know the rest). After Mark the 45 King developed a serious drug habit that threatened Flavor Unit, Latifah and partner Shakim Compere took over the brand. “She was the one who became the most successful. She had the finances to incorporate the name and to build a brand around it,” former crew member Lakim Shabazz explained to Red Bull Music Academy. “We sat down as a unit and discussed this, and everyone came to the agreement that it was okay for her to do that. So she incorporated the name and they got Flavor Unit Management, and eventually they built the label and the movie company.”

Flavor Unit Management continued to represent some of the original crew like “Gangsta B*tch” rapper Apache, took on Naughty by Nature, and at various points managed OutKast, LL Cool J, Monica, Faith Evans, Total, SWV, Groove Theory, Monifah, Gina Thompson, Donell Jones and Zhané. In between her second and third albums, Latifah left Tommy Boy for Motown Records and her own Flavor Unit Records imprint. By 1993, she was the head of her own management company and label. In 1995, they branched into film and television production.

Flavor Unit Entertainment has produced several of Latiah’s film vehicles including Beauty Shop, Just Wright, Last Holiday and Bessie; and TV shows including VH1’s Single Ladies (which I’m not ashamed to say I miss). The company had brokered content deals with Centric/BETHer and Netflix in recent years for new projects. Latifah’s busy.

The Queen has been an example for entertainers-turned entrepreneurs. MC Lyte celebrated her hustle and acumen in an open letter for Billboard, “My sister, the Queen, has single-handedly changed the way every female MC looks at their business and perhaps more importantly, has no doubt changed the way the world views female MCs and their business potential.”

All That Jazz

With success comes freedom to explore and push boundaries. Latifah sang at church and at school before she started rapping, and once her career was secure, she allowed herself room to be a vocalist. She started with her acting roles, first as a jazz singer in the 1998 movie Live Out Loud.

It’s worth noting that “Lush Life” is not an easy song to sing. Sinatra left it off an album after finding it too difficult. Latifah isn’t just a hold a melody singer. She’s a forreal singer.

Four years later, she dived head first into a full-out musical playing Mama. I mentioned she was nominated for an Oscar, right?

In 2004, she released The Dana Owens Album, a collection of jazz and soul standards. The album was a fair commercial success; it cracked the top 20 of the Billboard Top 200 and almost hit the top 10 of the R&B albums chart. It also garnered a Grammy Nomination for Best Jazz Vocal. She stuck with jazz for her following album, 2007’s Travelin’ Light. This time, the LP spent three weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Jazz albums chart and garnered an additional Grammy nomination, for Best Traditional Pop Vocal (which is the same category Tony Bennett wins pretty much annually).

If you go see Latifah perform today, just know there’s gonna be a jazz set. Come like 30 minutes late if you’re just trying to see Queen Latifah and not Dana Owens.

I can’t think of any other hip-hop artist who completely switched up genres. This isn’t even in the same vein as Lauryn being an R&B singer. This is like Deion Sanders and Bo Jackson playing two fundamentally different sports on a professional level.

Easy, Breezy, Beautiful Cover Queen

Latifah continued to prove her versatility by becoming a spokesperson for cosmetic giant CoverGirl in 2001, laying a foundation for brand ambassadors Janelle Monàe and Issa Rae to come later. In 2006, she became the brand’s first spokesperson to create their own line of products, launching the Queen Collection for women of color.

For years, the mainstream beauty industry has ignored the needs of darker-hued women, enough so that the array of shades available in Rihanna’s Fenty line was disruptive - in 2017. Latifah was proud of her representation as a CoverGirl, then an encounter with a fan convinced her the line was necessary. “The woman came up to me and was like, ‘I’m so happy for you and CoverGirl. I love that, but I wish y'all made a shade in my complexion.’ When she said that, it didn’t go past me, it stuck with me,” she told Essence. “I [thought], ‘okay, let’s go make a shade in your complexion’. I thought why am I CoverGirl if we can’t get our different shades?”

The Queen Collection is still one of CoverGirl’s best-selling lines, and one of the most popular makeup lines for women of color.

She may have done away with her trademark crown hat - she said people made too much of it, and anyone who’s been “Peace, Queen”ed excessively can probably relate – but Latifah has never been dethroned. She has consistently checked boxes and hit new benchmarks since her career began, although she’s said that wasn’t her goal.

“The goal was just to make a record, and then the goal was to do a TV show,” Latifah told Ebony magazine in 2007, “and then the goal was to make movies, and then to produce movies and produce records.” Whether intentional, guided by grace, or just by luck plus perseverance, however, Dana Owens has become one of the biggest stars not just in music, but period. She is universally respected and loved. The Queen still reigns, and we are merely her subjects.

#MusicSermon is a weekly series by Naima Cochrane that highlights the under-acknowledged and under-appreciated urban artists and sub-genres from the '90s and earlier. The series seeks to tell unknown and/or forgotten stories that connect the dots between current music, culture and the foundations of the past.

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Winston Duke Can’t Be Boxed In

Scowling to FKJ and Masego’s “Tadow” is a pretty nefarious task, but Winston Duke doesn’t so much as crack a smile when its svelte saxes and warped keys slice the tense air of a Midtown New York studio. Marking the midpoint of the Black Boy Joy playlist he curated for Spotify, the 6’5” actor stares down the camera with a glare that could send a mischievous tot running off in tears. From a white chair that looks embarrassingly miniature beneath him, he hunches forward at the lens and the cluster of people standing behind it, hands firmly clasped. Turn your head to the side. A little bit more. Duke pivots slowly, inching his chin to the left with surgical precision, eyes cutting the wall as if he’s sizing up someone no one else in the room can see.

There is a wrinkle in his olive Rag and Bone shirt. His stylist urgently flocks to his side to tug and tuck, opening the floodgates for the rest of glam — the groomer dabs his Adam’s apple and brow bone, his barber is armed with a cape, and his rep analyzes his pant cuffs from behind the computer screen — to tend to things that have hardly shifted in the two minutes he’s been sitting there. Winston’s facade hasn’t softened for the entirety of the first look, but by the time he stands to review the images, Machel Montano’s vibrant and percussive “Take It Slow” tumbles out from the speakers. Duke breaks form, unable to refrain from softly singing along with the Trinidadian soca artist, a hometown hero, and his body instinctively sways to the riddim. “Making up for not going down to Carnival this year, huh?” I tease from behind the Canon. And for the first time within the hour, he cracks a toothy smile and nods, still dancing.

While our team wonders what he's really thinking, we forget Winston Duke knows how to commit. He's a damn good actor. We’re in the presence of a man whose entire day job is to master the art of staying in character. As he floats from set-up to set-up, he comes alive in different ways, carrying with him the traits of all the versions of him we’ve seen on the big screen so far: The dominant stance and steely disposition of M’Baku from Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther, the grit of a tethered Abraham and the glee of Gabe Wilson from Jordan Peele’s new film Us. Duke can be whoever you want or need him to be when the camera’s rolling, but sitting face-to-face to figure out the real Winston is the true experience.

Enough time spent with the Yale-trained thespian will reveal that he’s quick on his feet when it comes to the creative realm. Duke plucking a story from thin air is impressive, and watching him do so in real time is a downright treat. When I meet him in the book-lined Reading Room of the art dealer chic Whitby Hotel a week or so prior, he’s been mouthing off all day. As we learned from Black Panther, Duke knows how to be a larger-than-life scene-stealer when he wants. Right now, however, the man who cemented his cinematic entrance as an intimidating mountain warrior is trying to conjure up a tender tale about critters.

“It could be a story about an ant that learns to fly because he wants to find love with a fly,” he says, entertaining a tangent he stumbled on about his enamoration with stories. The conversation began with his scary-movie preferences but landed on the fact that he’s drawn to narratives about almost anything. “I love stories period, it’s just gotta be tied to something. It has to be about something. That story I just described is about love.”

Without pause, we chuckle at the charm of his Pixar-perfect non-sequitur, but admittedly, it would be interesting to see where his mini Bug’s Life saga could go. He’s clearly interested, too. “That’s actually a cool idea,” he quietly repeats to himself, sussing out the synopsis to see if it could grow legs. “An ant? An ant that learns to fly because it’s in love with a fly …”

There’s more where that came from, but he doesn’t have time to tell it. His four handlers for the day gently call out the five-minute mark to wrap up an interview that has, presumably, gone on for an hour, but Duke isn’t done yet. Without truncating his stream of thought to honor the time crunch, he leans deeper into his last response. Hint taken. An additional 10 minutes have been granted, and although Duke has offered to shorten his responses to accommodate as many “last questions” as possible (and continues talking even as he gathers his belongings to leave), he simply has more to say. A lot more.

“I’m always thinking about myself, which comes off good or bad sometimes, but I’m always thinking about how to get better.” —Winston Duke

The Tobago-born film star has been stateside for more than 20 years, even attending undergraduate school in icy Buffalo, N.Y., but still has not adjusted to the bite of winter. “I can’t do anything below 60 degrees, honestly,” he says, cocooned by a massive Canada Goose down coat he refuses to take off, even though we’re indoors. He removes it only for a photo, revealing a linen summer suit and salmon shirt befitting the warm weather he’s accustomed to, then puts it right back on. So, no ski trips for you? He lets out Thor’s hammer of a hearty laugh, one of many that escape from him during our chat. “Ah, it’s never appealed. Snow is not my thing.”

Growing up along 116 square miles of pristine coastline he still refers to as “home,” despite emigrating from the island to New York as a child, means that he still subscribes to a very island lifestyle. Duke, now 32, moves at a nonchalant, easy-going pace, listens more than he speaks, and he considers himself flexible and always willing to change (“I try to maintain a feeling that’s like water.”). Anyone with ears can tell he’s a natural orator; his speech is painted with a charming lilt that intensifies the more comfortable he gets. Although he has a warm heart, his naturally dignified presence and stoic delivery may intimidate someone unfamiliar with a Caribbean’s stern humor.

Duke was insulated by the constant flow of love from his mother, Cora, his sister, Cindy, and the small community of Argyle that became an extension of his family, especially those who spent their days eating and drinking at his mother’s eatery, Cindy’s Restaurant, a local gathering spot. “This old man used to come every single day and spend a quarter to half of his day eating, just talking. He would tell all these stories about what Tobago was like before electricity came,” Duke says. “A lot of his stories were filled with a lot of magic because everything cast a shadow before 6 p.m.”

Young Duke’s mind was molded by this Tobagonian folklore, and Duke soaked in this gift of narration, although, for the most part, it was a private passion. He was a quiet kid whose traditionally-Caribbean family ideally wanted him to take on a practical, reliable profession like his older sister, who went on to become an infertility specialist. However, he knew their route wasn’t his calling. There were stories he soon wanted to tell on his own.

After the abolition of slavery in 1834 under the British Empire, indentured servants were brought into the country to continue the necessary manual labor. As a result, Trinidad and Tobago is now home to a mix of not only African natives but those from East India, Syria and China. Living on the diverse island exposed Winston to a bit of everything as a youth. His island’s major interfaith community meant that both Christmas and Diwali were celebrated by all, and Duke learned about the Bhagavad Gita, one of the Indian holy Vedic books, prior to immigrating to the U.S. He was exposed to the ins and outs of local politics since campaigning prime ministers and visiting presidential candidates would parade right past his house along the main road. And with black and brown bodies occupying all levels of the social and political scale from the homely to the elite, his dominant culture wasn’t squarely rooted in white supremacy. “That’s one thing that I didn’t have to grow up around,” he says. “Not to say that all those -isms didn’t exist where we’re from; it just manifests differently. Especially when you have a black president and prime minister, and then an Indian president and prime minister and coup by Islamic progressives.” These rich, cultural stories and the normalized integration of various lifestyles made it easier for him to see people as people instead of as others.

All this worldly knowledge and exposure did not age him, however. While surrounded by endless stimuli, as a child, Duke was still allowed to be a child. For most of his life there, he was spoiled by the delights of daily sea baths and river swims, endless spicy pepper pot and pone and pelau, toys and playtime. “I was sheltered a lot by a mother and sister and larger extended family that was just like, ‘You’re gonna keep your childhood,’” he says. “Children are treated like children, and men, especially in these family cultures, are babied for a very long time. The boy child is still very much a prize, and masculinity is treated as a prize in that culture. But as a result, I saw all of the women around me fighting a lot of the battles because they didn’t want me to fight it. They didn’t want me exposed. Then coming to this country, they had to shelter me in a whole different way: ‘We don’t want no police stopping you. Survive every encounter. Always take ‘no’ as an answer. No means no.’”

“Let’s put him in a role that white people don’t see coming.” —Jordan Peele

By no means was life handed to Duke on a silver platter; he just had the luxury of being ignorant to it all. “We went through hard times as well, but I never saw those hard times while we were living back at home,” he says. Because his mother owned a restaurant, he was never hungry. She would pay for a car to bring him home from school if she wasn’t able to. “I grew up thinking we had a private car and driver,” he jokes. “It was just a dude that she would pay to pick me up from school.” And because his mother was one of 12 siblings, somebody was bringing even more food to the house. “In my early childhood, I never thought about money. I didn’t have to think about it.”

That notion of not thinking about things has changed plenty. He has grown into this thoughtful, weighty version of himself, and he’ll tell you this. True to Caribbean culture, Duke grew up in a household that had a lot of nicknames for everyone, so until he reached the age of thinking for himself and “defying the rules a little bit,” he was known to his family as Winny. “It was Winny because Winnie the Pooh was a big thing, so Winston turned into Winny, and I grew into Winston. That name seemed like a big name for a child, I think. Winston Duke. It felt big.” Those cushioned Winny years did not reveal his passion for the stage and the screen in the way fans of his might expect. “My creative pursuits were pretty private for a really long time,” he says. “Just my immediate family knew that I wanted to be an actor, and they were always trying to convince me to be a lawyer or doctor until I was just like, ‘I’m not gonna do that.’ It doesn’t make me happy.”

That acting bug didn’t actually break skin until his high school teacher dragged him outside of his comfort zone and pushed him into his first performance: a student-run, 24-hour play. Writers would meet one night to start writing, actors came in the morning to read and memorize the scripts, and the director put it together for it to be performed the next evening — basically, a whirlwind of fatigue with equal parts stress and reward.

“My teacher signed me up for that after she saw me do a presentation in Spanish class.” As a slowly acclimating immigrant going through New York’s schooling system, Winston didn’t know many people, so he kept to himself. “[I was] doing a Spanish presentation, and for some reason, I had a yo-yo in my pocket. I pulled it out and started doing it, going through my presentation.” She requested to speak to him after class, not because he was in trouble like he’d thought, but because she was intrigued. “‘You came alive in front of people counterintuitively,’” he recalls her saying. “‘You’re very shy otherwise, but in front of people, you came alive. I think that you should do the school theater.’ She went and signed me up for the play, and I had to show up.”

The fun of it all set him off, and he started tossing his hat in the ring for small projects, like mall auditions for The CW walk-on roles, but he knew he wanted more. “People who know me are always like, ‘You always seem like you know what you want,’ but it’s not like it comes easy,” he says. Duke has been a beneficiary of the power of his own mind on numerous occasions. He assesses himself almost daily to figure out if a particular course of action is or isn’t working out and how he should reroute accordingly. “I’m always thinking about myself, which comes off good or bad sometimes, but I’m always thinking about how to get better.” As far as acting was concerned, The Yale School of Drama, he surmised, would get him better.

His move to attend the Ivy League garnered praise from his family, as they finally accepted his acting dreams since he was “getting into a school where [his] ethnic mom could gloat about it.” After graduating from University at Buffalo, Duke spent a year diving into the audition process, but after bombing several auditions and waiting on line in several “this could be your big break” cattle calls that went nowhere, he knew more schooling was necessary. “I needed to be more competitive, and I did not have the tools necessary to do the work that I wanted to emulate,” he says. “I needed training. I decided at that moment that I was going to get into grad school. There was no Plan B. I put all my eggs in that basket, and then that worked.” By that, he means those strengthened muscles in stage and camera work, and small gigs snowballed into major TV appearances like Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, Person of Interest and Modern Family, the former of which sent his island into a tizzy. “There was an outpouring of love. It was all over every magazine in both islands. That was huge.” Then along came his big film debut with the Marvel canon: Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War, and eventually, Avengers: Endgame.

Duke represents what Hollywood is slowly becoming: a diverse pot of TV and film offerings flavored with actors and characters who run the whole gamut of relatable, human experiences. Casting directors are stepping away from the easy way out. Tinseltown has a way of funneling big, tall, black actors (think Good Times’ John Amos, Green Mile’s Michael Clarke Duncan, and Pulp Fiction’s Ving Rhames) into gruffer roles, but consider Us Duke’s way of shaking things up and challenging those archetypes.

“Black Panther was just a watershed, and now with Us, it’s another big cultural watershed because they loved Get Out,” he says, throwing his head back for emphasis. He still has recordings from friends back home of people yelling at Daniel Kaluuya’s character through theater screens. “So, now for me to be in Jordan Peele’s second movie, everyone’s excited.”

The pride his homeland feels for him is a next-level feeling because it’s not just his blood relatives. At this point in his career, the entire Republic of Trinidad and Tobago is his kin. To his neighbors and beyond, “their family has done something, so by extension, they’ve done something,” he explains. “They believed that they also raised me, so, technically, their thoughts, their beliefs, their teachings, their cuisine, their history is now in Black Panther. In Us. In Hollywood. In production meetings. In table reads.”

Everything about Duke exudes intention, right down to his measured mannerisms in conversation. When he reaches a peak realization mid-soliloquy, he’ll rearrange the crossing of his legs, how far away or how close he’s leaning from the table, whether he pivots to face me or lets the full weight of his body fall back into the seat and his hands stretch across the table, fingers tapping its surface in rhythm. Each of his fingertips has his own weight when it lands on the wood, its own felt vibration, to accentuate each point. All of that comes from where he comes from, traits from every person in his community now stitched into the patchwork of his being. “I’m called an ‘all we boy.’ ‘All we’ is ‘alla we.’ So, when they say ‘all we boy,’ it’s our boy. ‘All we boy doing good. Winston’s an all we boy.’”

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The first time Winston watched Us, the air felt different. After spending two hours as one of 15 bodies in a 150-seat theater, the hugeness of the occasion hung overhead. The hazy sunset, though he’d seen them many times before, felt unfamiliar this time. Despite his spectacle-enhanced eyesight, the colors cast along the sidewalk outside the theater looked different. “I think really good art changes the air,” Duke says ahead of SXSW. The Austin premiere would mark the second time ever seeing Peele’s highly-anticipated Get Out follow-up, and the first time with a crowd — “the public.” While he emits an air of confidence, suppressing the butterflies of knowing your work is officially “out there” is a tall order. “You either feel tense, you feel happy, you feel sad, you feel something, because the air changes. It shifts.”

Duke isn’t lying. When black entertainers, tastemakers and media rivered into New York City, Atlanta, and Los Angeles theaters for simultaneous #UsFirst early screenings — Peele says “it would’ve been a big problem for [him] if black journalists weren’t included in the unveiling of this movie” — the energy shifts were palpable from scene to scene.

“What the hell is wrong with Jordan Peele?” an audience member exclaimed during one of the film’s many twisted scenes. A particularly charismatic bedroom scene in which Duke was the star downright drew an onslaught of cackles from the crowd. Aside from there being no doubt in Duke’s magnetic star power, the spirited conversation between the audience and the screen was confirmation that Us is another moment for both black entertainment and Hollywood at large.

“When people take big swings with love, we are rewarded, but black people — certainly in the film industry — haven’t been given enough leeway to fail, let alone succeed,” Jordan Peele says during an L.A. roundtable. He’s addressing being embraced by former skeptics after Get Out, especially given that both his films can be safely categorized as “weird.” “Like Get Out, I’m trying to push representation into a place and into a type of story we don’t usually see.”

While Us isn’t explicitly about race as its predecessor, Peele doesn’t feel like it has to be in order to shake the table and reframe how black people are seen on screen. Being a dark-skinned black family at the center of a scary movie is enough. “To be able to normalize this idea of representation in film, we have to be ready to represent the spectrum of where we are as African-Americans. I hope it’s therapeutic to be able to see a black family buy a boat in a movie, to be able to play the good guy and the bad guy, and not have it be a movie that has to be about race. I think that’s good within our community, and it’s good for the outside communities to be able to see — don’t put us in boxes.”

Even in casting Duke, the goal was to break the mold a bit. When Peele had originally written the script, he did not picture the Wilson patriarch as physically formidable as Duke, but rather as a nerdy version of himself. When initially considering him for the role, he thought choosing a dad people still see as M’Baku might make the movie less scary. However, talking to him and discovering a different shade to his character made him realize Duke was “not only essential casting because he's a great actor, but [it’s] important to put a guy who wouldn't be cast in a movie like this, for these reasons, in that role. It's an important piece of representation to take a guy that we assume is one type of dude and allow him to be a different type of dude.” Or to put it even more plainly: “Let’s put him in a role that white people don’t see coming.”

When Duke took the part, it was more important to get into the nitty-gritty of why Gabe Wilson exists in this film and understand the life experiences that made him who he is. Gabe was penned as a weekend warrior, Keeping Up With The Joneses, all-American corny dad, so Duke drew from sitcom fathers as inspiration for the jokey nature of his character. “He lives on the balls of his feet,” he says. “Very impulsive and playful, but he’s that dad.”

That dad is spinning water wheelies around a lake on a secondhand clunker named the Crab Daddy, not knowing terror is about to befall his family. To bring out that sense of blissful obliviousness, as well as lean into his larger purpose, Duke sought out dramaturgy help. “I wanted to get inside of the world and the genre, and I wanted to hold fast to the allegory and commentary that was being made, so I wanted my character to be deeply functioned in that space.”

Peele says having Duke offset the on-screen bloodshed by humorously calling out “duh” moments was essential to keeping the edge off his viewers. “I have to have somebody voice what the audience was saying,” he says. “In the case of Get Out, it’s Rod, like, ‘How have you not left yet?’ [In Us], Winston is largely that voice. There’s one moment where Lupita [Nyong’o] takes a step into the unknown, where black people [will think], ‘I don’t know.’ But to have Winston say, ‘Aaaand she left. Your mother just walked out of the car.’ That’s all we need.”

“His function isn’t to see through the veil,” Duke adds, nodding to Gabe’s general unawareness. “His function is to tell the absolute truth how he sees it. He’s sometimes there to say the things that other people don’t want to say, but he’s also there to make fun of things to keep it from not getting too heavy, even though it’s real. That was my job. Jordan respected that. I like to lean into functions. If I’m going to be your antagonist, I’m gonna really push you. If I’m gonna be your clown, funny guy, I’m gonna do that.”

One of the things that Peele was drawn to about Duke is just how seriously he takes the job, no matter how far away from serious the role may seem. “I was really taken with the fact that he wants to dig deep,” Peele says later on the phone. “As I do with all my actors, I asked him, ‘What's the biggest help I can be with you?’ He said, ‘Information. The more information I know the better, the more confident in my performance I will be, the more I can strategize.’” That affinity for proper planning, he says, is common amongst Yale Drama grads, his Us wife Lupita Nyong’o included. As homework, she watched a laundry list of Peele’s horror film suggestions to prepare to play Adelaide Wilson and her doppelganger, Red.  “This is going to be somebody who was in a constant search for a deeper meaning and deeper layer,” Peele continues, “and that thoroughness is something that I've come to really pride in my collaborators.”

Teamwork surrounding character development was another extension of Peele honoring his actors’ processes. Take Gabe’s wardrobe selection, where neither Peele nor Duke could resist the Howard University representation. “We talked about different [HBCUs], and I was like, I think he feels like a Howard guy. I feel like he’s playful, he could be serious, he’s going to protect his family at any cost, so he’s many things at once. That’s another thing about Gabe that I love. He’s not any one thing. He’s sensual, he’s playful, he’s serious when he wants to be. He’s all these things, but he’s still super privileged. He’s not any one thing throughout the story. It feels like Howard,” Duke says — although shouts from the audience at the NY screening begged to differ. Reacting to his lack of “catching it” when first seeing the family, “Naw, he’s gotta be a Hampton man” was heard from either side.

After the screening, hardly anyone went straight home. Instead, they gathered at the hotel’s now-closed bar, hoping for more wine to help them unpack what they’d just seen. Regardless of whether viewers instantly heralded it Oscar worthy, had more questions than answers, were still shaking or wanted to square up with Peele, the clusters of discussion created a deafening hum in the space. Eyes widened and scattered yells ensued as conspiracy theories and thesis-level analyses shot left and right. Duke already knew this project would be a conversation starter he wanted in on.

“Other than it being a Jordan Peele movie, when I read the script, I said, ‘Whoa, cool discussion about power and privilege,” Duke says. “Cool discussion about American culture, about the American dream, about its global proximity to others.’ I want to be a part of that conversation. And to be part of a conversation about the nuances of black psychology. It’s a lot of psychology, and what kind of person does that create? Sorry To Bother You, psychology. Beale Street, Moonlight, psychology. It’s a lot of nuance of black psychology instead of just celebrating your physical attributes and vilifying or fetishizing it. We’re not in a blaxploitation age.” Duke as Gabe helps deliver Peele’s poignant Easter eggs and social commentary. “[Gabe] is intentionally the American dream, and as a result, he is very insecure because he’s not grounded in reality.”

"The boy child is still very much a prize, and masculinity is treated as a prize in that culture. But as a result, I saw all of the women around me fighting a lot of the battles because they didn’t want me to fight it." —Winston Duke

“All throughout the movie, I've used American imagery and the duality of American imagery because that was, first and foremost, the ‘us’ that I was attempting to address,” Peele says. “We as a culture, we're a culture of finger pointers. We're a culture that is xenophobic. This movie is about many different forms that the word ‘us’ can take, but on the level of this country, it conjured the true horror of what's going on in this country right now.”

Real-life horrors indeed. Even Duke found himself scared watching Us, despite already knowing the paths of all the characters. “Even though I read it on the page, watching it on its feet is 100-percent different, and I wasn’t there for the filming of those things, so it was brand new to me,” he says. “I didn’t get to experientially go through that moment, so it’s scary.” And that says a lot, considering the fact that he wouldn’t even call himself a scary movie person. “I think this is the kind of scary movie person I am, which is one that’s wrapped around a really intimate, well-composed story.”

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I ask Duke if M’Baku will be a hard shadow to step from under, and he instantly recoils, wrinkling his brow at the proposition. The defense mode comes naturally — and rightfully so. “It’s my work, I don’t really wanna step away from it. I don’t wanna step out of it,” he says. “I think it should be a part of a library of work that I’ve done and celebrated. I celebrate it. People sometimes are haunted by the work, but that’s just how you approach it. That’s up to you to think as an individual, the kind of work that you do and put out there and how boldly you attack your work and do things [so] that people will remember other things, too.”

Duke may still be emotionally attached to the character that made him one to watch, but the Jabari tribe leader is not synonymous with him, and neither is the Wilsons’ goofball.

“I think Gabe lives somewhere along my spectrum, [and] I think M’Baku lives somewhere along my spectrum,” he says, assessing where he falls between the two cinematic poles. “I think I’m very many things. I think I’m funny, I’m intellectual. I think I’m vulnerable, I think I’m guarded. Gabe has a lot of my impulsive playfulness, but he doesn’t have my consciousness. At all. Gabe, to me, represents the culture that he belongs to. He’s too privileged.

“M’Baku is at the total opposite end of that spectrum,” he continues. “He’s actually not privileged. He comes from a group of people that are oppressed by the dominant culture of his society. M’Baku is socially conscious. He knows his place within his community and the responsibilities that he has to his people. He has a civic duty and wants to challenge his country to be better but will risk everything to save it.”

So, who is Duke in the middle of all that? It’s all part of the process of figuring him out piece by piece, role by role, extreme by extreme, and in each layer that pulls back, slowly but surely, there will be a lesson, a reflection of a deficit within mainstream conversation. “I’m deeply humbled by it and I tried to understand what it was because people still don’t know me that well, they don’t know who Winston is. But they did respond to M’Baku,” he said last year, responding to a red carpet question about his sex appeal. “I feel what they were responding to is something that felt authentic, something different from what they’ve been consuming before, and the image that presented: A confident man. A confident black man, 6’5”, 250-pound man with stretch marks. A man with a gapped tooth. I feel they were just saying, ‘We want that, we want more of that.’ If we just take the time to understand it, they’re not just lusting, they’re screaming out for something different.”

Looking at Duke’s social feeds will reveal just how much he likes to switch things up. “I’m not a perfect person in any way because I do struggle with some of those same things, too — like if I put this up, people might make fun of me; I do worry about potentially being bullied online — but I have to live. People are going to be people, and I have to be me. I just try to embrace the freedom of what it means to live at this time. I want to embrace the freedom of my time.”

Duke wants his work to drown out tropes that try to limit our frame of thought. “It’s important to embrace what is a word that has become so watered down by our world, not just our culture — the word ‘freedom,’” he says. “Freedom to not be anything in particular. Freedom to self-define: self-define yourself, self-define your language, self-define your verbiage and your lexicon, and choose for yourself what those things are. Choose for yourself what love means because you have to define that. Choose what art means for you. Choose what success means for you. And that, for me, is the biggest thing.”

Winston Duke will be whoever Winston Duke wants to be and will live as freely as he can while doing so. That’s all he owes to himself — no boxes, no borders, no baggage.

READ MORE: 'Black Panther' Star Winston Duke To Portray Kimbo Slice In Biopic

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Photographer: Stacy-Ann Ellis

Stylist: Jenny Ricker, Stylist Assistants: Thomas Kivell, Richard Sifuentes, Tabitha Sanchez

Makeup Artist: Laila Hayani

Groomer: Martyse Lewis

Videographer: Kristen White

Additional Style Credits (Header Image) | Jacket and Knit: Rag and Bone, Trousers: Vince, Boots: Frye, Chain Necklace, and Bracelet: David Yurman

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J.Lo’s ‘World of Dance’ Proves To Be A World of Opportunity

For two years, Jennifer Lopez, Ne-Yo, and Derek Hough have introduced some of the world’s best dancers to viewers across America. Their NBC weekly competition series, World Of Dance, fills living room television sets with high-flying stunts and out-of-this-world routines. The show’s multicultural acts each bring a distinct flavor to their every step, tracing back to their native homelands.

Now in its third season, the dance tournament is divided into various categories befit for each act’s demographic. The brackets are divided into levels: Upper, Junior, Upper Team, and Junior Team and they’re all in the race for a hefty $1 million. Yet with all that talent in one room, you can bet the competition is stiff. It’s also nerve-wracking trying to impress superstars like Lopez, Ne-Yo, and Hough for a qualifying score.

There’s The Kings, a group from India that flies across the stage in lightning bolt speed. Their precision is just as massive as their dash, everything is carefully coordinated into perfection. Then there’s The Heima from Seoul, South Korea that offers an incredible fusion of Asian culture paired with beautiful choreography.

Surprisingly, if J.Lo would’ve had the chance to compete in a show like her own at the beginning of her career in the early ‘90s, she admits she would’ve passed on it.

“If I was on In Living Color, I probably wouldn’t try out for World Of Dance,” she says seated on a leather couch at a private party room at Los Angeles’ NeueHouse Hollywood. “I probably would more be watching World of Dance and cheering on my friends. The level of tricks and technical skills is not something that I had when I was coming up. Even though I know my flips and tricks just a little bit, I’m in awe of what they are able to do.”

It’s also exciting to learn from the contestants, some of which she says end up working with her after the show is over.

“I’m from The Bronx. I’m a hip-hop girl at heart so I’m always looking at what the young kids are doing, and trying to do that too,” she notes.  “Let’s get some young kids here so they could teach us the new steps.”

While the new generation of dancers are exciting, it also isn’t taken lightly by the judges—especially for Ne-Yo. The award-winning R&B artist is known for his tough criticism, and he isn’t generous when it comes to scoring. His methodology is earnest yet simple: show and prove.

“If I’m going to give you a million dollars you’re going to earn it,” the 39-year-old says flatly. “Whether you’re an eight-year-old or a 38-year-old, your skill level is what makes me go, ‘I’m going to talk to you like a person who wants a million dollars from me.’ It is what it is.”

Hough adds that the judges often disagree when it comes to scoring.

“We’ve had full-blown arguments after a performance where we’re behind the desk and I just straight-out disagree with some of their things, and with their opinions,” he told Entertainment Weekly. “But that’s what makes us judges. We’re going to have different opinions, and we’re going to have conflicting ideas. I think ’cause we’re so passionate about it, we’re so invested, and we love dance. We’re all fans of dance, and we want to make this the best we can possibly make it.”

Amid Ne-Yo’s tough rubric, there’s no denying that working alongside Lopez has a positive effect on his work ethic.

“J.Lo is over here killing the game,” he says. “It makes you go up because she’s the ultimate. She comes in sharp, alert, charismatic, every single time,” despite having a million other things to do the second the show is done taping.

World Of Dance is something Lopez also enjoys with her family. She watches it with her children and says her son Max wants a chance to compete to win the million dollars. “They love the show and they love the electricity of the show. It’s powerful, it’s young, it’s fun,” J.lo says.

What gives the show its power is the exposure that it grants contestants whether or not they win the grand prize. “Getting on that stage in itself is a victory,” Ne-Yo says. “You’re in people’s houses every week. If you can’t parlay that into something whether you win a million dollars or not, you’re not hustling right.”

World Of Dance airs on Sundays at 8 p.m. EST on NBC.

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Courtesy of Rialto Pictures

The Ying and Yang of ‘Yardie’ Star Aml Ameen

There’s a scar above Aml Ameen’s right eyebrow that he got when he was three years old. Thirty years later, the British actor can laugh at running face first so ferociously he split his head open. The victim he was charging at, his cousin, walked away without a scratch.

Cracking himself open is what Ameen did in order to embody the role of D, the lead in Idris Elba’s directorial debut Yardie. Adapted into a screenplay from the 1992 Victor Headley novel of the same name, viewers see Ameen take on a character who’s more morally ambidextrous than he is ethically ambiguous. The film spans two decades and locations—Jamaica and London—as D grapples with his brother’s murder and enacting revenge while diving deeper into a treacherous drug world.

To become a true yardie, Ameen who’s British-Jamaican and Vincentian, went full method acting. After living in Bob Marley’s homeland for three months, when Ameen returned to London, friends, family or whoever met him anew.

“People met me as D, they met me as the part. The mindset, I was only speaking patois. All the cast and crew met me as D. And so, by the time I came back I had gotten out of my own way to a large degree in terms of any trepidation I might have,” he says. “When you immerse yourself fully into a world and you give over to a part often you start by feeling like you’re faking it. But after a while, your body doesn’t know you’re telling it something. It just starts to believe it. So let’s just say you’re telling yourself every morning ‘I’m ugly! I’m ugly! I’m ugly!’ Your body will start feeling that. It can be a bit traumatic, but you don’t have to do as much work. So that foundation of playing D gave me a lot of confidence.”

Ameen isn’t unattractive. In fact, he’s handsome. Standing a hair above 5’6” his tall personality supersedes his actual height. His toasted almond skin is clear. His lips full. He smiles often but there’s a resting smirk that gives way to slight mischief or an undetected superpower. It could be his ability to transform to a spliff smoking badmon, or maybe it’s the courage he mustered the night before this interview to perform at New York’s famed Nuyorican Poetry Cafe. Either way, something’s there.

D and Ameen however, couldn’t be any more different. Ameen is measured, deliberate with his words and tidy. His Ray-Ban sunglasses accent his blue striped button-down and his tan wool coat. D is unpredictable, shaggy; his locs an orchestra of controlled chaos. D also isn’t opposed to shooting first and to channel his character’s demeanor, Ameen channeled his Uncle Kirk.

“My Uncle Kirk is one of them stoic, handsome, men from his time in the 80s. There are loads of pictures I have of him and he’s just one of them men who didn’t really smile but when he smiled it was like is he smiling because he’s happy with what you’re saying or not?” he says. “I’ve got a lot of British in me and we tend to be polite by default. You see Jamaicans, they’ll look you in your eye and talk to you like this [with a straight face] for all of the interview and it’s fine with them. There’s an intensity.”

As a first-generation Jamaican, I can attest to the seriousness that runs through the island. Despite the sun, the rum and the savory oxtail gravy, Jamaicans don’t joke around, or as we say: we nuh romp.

Serendipity was at play when Ameen and Elba first met in an elevator both heading to the same Los Angeles-bound flight. They discussed the book and Elba’s script. Ameen’s verbiage of choice is “sanitized” when describing the difference in the brutality of D on screen compared to the novel. Over time, the young rebel develops a coke habit and to bait Clancy, his brother’s killer, D rapes the mother of his children. In the movie, however, after breaking into their home and points a gun at Clancy’s girlfriend, D grants privacy when she pretends to breastfeed her child.

And while D doesn’t explicitly say it, he has a death wish. If you watch the film properly as Ameen suggests, you can see moments in which D is chasing after his own demise. Ameen’s only desire is to live his life fully, a reality he better understands isn’t a luxury afforded to many.

“I’ve experienced people who died who were my age, and not died from like the usual gangs or that sort, but like a heart attack, 33 years old, dead. Another friend pushed off a balcony by his girlfriend. Uncle died three days ago, my dad’s brother,” Ameen says. “When my two bredins died, it was a certain feeling, but with my uncle dying I had more of an understanding of D’s journey, which I had to imagine now, than 18 months two years ago during filming. It’s very hard to fill the void of a family member dying. You never know when your card is going to get pulled, so you want enough time to do stuff, but at the same time once real people die in your life that you love you fear it less.”

D also never worked with The Sexiest Man Alive. Ameen describes Elba’s directorial hand as less controlling and more freeing. Elba would later invite Ameen to his home while filming The Mountain Between Us where the two shaped the character. Once the two-time Golden Globe winner yelled “action!” Ameen said he was granted the autonomy to do what he wanted.

“[Elba] wanted me to method act and we discussed the general mindset of D, the look that he wanted to achieve. He wanted a uniform accent, things like that. And then he just set those parameters and left me to go in and do it,” he says. “He knows the type of actor I am. He wasn’t like, ‘All right, this is how I want you to do it.’ I’ve worked with first-time directors before. I never worked with an actor-director and he gave a lot of space. There were only so many moments when he was like, ‘This is what I want’ and he allowed me to create this world where I lived.”

While going full method was the approach that made for the best performance, it wasn’t always easy for some on set. Ameen rarely broke character and admittedly held others “hostage to his process.” He was so intrinsically D, it took him roughly eight months to let go of him once the film wrapped.

“Not like talking patois all the time, but the state of being. Every morning as D I’m waking up to gunshots as my alarm clock. Every morning I’m sitting in bed for an hour or two imagining the murder of my brother. If you’re a person with a conscious, that’ll run on your mind. It took me a while, definitely.”

I forget my follow up question and the room gets quiet. We’ve been talking for close to 40 minutes. Ameen uses this chance to turn the tables and question me. We discuss zodiac signs and Miles Davis. There’s a younger version of the late jazz legend Ameen believes is equally complex and intriguing. He admits he’d love to portray him. Instead, he’ll have to settle for Netflix’s forthcoming Inside Man 2, a departure from the Spike Lee-directed crime-drama which starred Clive Owen and Denzel Washington.

“Those are some big shoes to fill,” I tell him.

“I ain’t tryna fill em. That’s the goat,” Ameen says of Washington as he chuckles. “I could be the ram if they want. I can be the little lamb.”

He opens his Spotify app and plays “Blue In Green.”

“What’s your star sign?” he questions.

Every man I’ve ever loved (whether reciprocal or not) is a Leo, so when I learned of his July 30th birthday, I was...annoyed.

VIBE: We don’t get along.

Ameen: Who don’t?

VIBE: We don’t.

Ameen: Why do you say that?

VIBE: I looked it up. We don’t get along.

Ameen: Is that the attitude you came to the interview with? That’s terrible. What’s your sign?

VIBE: I’m a Gemini. I find Leo men are, it’s almost astonishing, how confident they are, and like unjustifiably so sometimes.

Ameen: And that’s what I remind you of?

He takes a sip of water and leans back. He crosses his legs and continues to listen to Miles while scrolling through social media on his phone. A smile emerges on his face. Like his Uncle Kirk, I’m not sure if he’s smiling because he finds our banter fun and playful, or if his unknown superpower is bubbling at the surface.

“Interesting,” Ameen says.

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